June 28, 2017

Dog Ownership and Physical Activity Levels in Older Adults

Dog ownership, particularly dog walking, can improve physical activity in older adults.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
A study recently published in BMC Public Health reported that older adults (>65 years) who own dogs walked more steps and spent more time walking, suggesting the potential health-improving effects of dog ownership. “This study,” the researchers wrote, “provides the best quality data to date on the effects of dog ownership on physical activity.”
 
In older adults, physical activity typically decreases while sedentary behavior increases, potentially leading to poor health outcomes. In the United Kingdom, national health guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per week for all adults; meeting these guidelines can help older adults enjoy independent living and improved quality of life.
 
Previous studies have reported greater physical activity levels in dog owners (DOs) than non–dog owners (NDOs), particularly regarding walking. However, these studies primarily used self-reporting to collect data, which can introduce bias. “Objective measures of physical activity and sedentary behavior,” said the researchers, “allow closer scrutiny of the potential relationship between dog ownership and health.”
 
Study Details
Researchers used an objective monitoring device—ActivPAL—to evaluate the relationship between dog ownership, physical activity, and sedentary behavior in independent older adults living in communities. Study participants lived in 3 geographically different UK regions and were matched into 43 pairs (DO, NDO) according to demographic factors.
 
Participants wore the ActivPAL continuously. Device data were collected during 4-month intervals throughout the year. DOs reported additional information regarding their dog (eg, age, breed) and dog ownership responsibilities. All participants reported sleep and waking times.
 
Various outcomes of physical activity (eg, time spent walking) and sedentary behavior (eg, number of sedentary events) were evaluated.
 
Results
Demographics and Sleep/Wake Time
All participants were white British. Most were women and lived in low deprivation communities. Among the DOs, 95% owned 1 or 2 dogs; about half reported sole responsibility for dog care in their respective households. Just under half of the DOs walked their dogs on a leash.
 
DOs and NDOs had similar amounts of sleep and wake times. Over 90% of the participants were compliant with wearing the ActivPAL.
 
Physical Activity
Overall, physical activity was significantly greater in DOs than in NDOs. Compared with NDOs, DOs walked about 2700 more steps and spent about 20 more minutes walking per day. This additional time spent walking was done at a moderate pace.
 
A significantly higher percentage of DOs than NDOs (87% vs 47%) met the physical activity recommendation of 150 minutes of MVPA per week.
 
Sedentary Behavior
DOs were less sedentary than NDOs, indicated by significantly fewer sedentary events per day (44 vs 52). DOs also spent about 20 fewer minutes per day being sedentary compared with NDOs; this finding was not statistically significant, but could, the researchers believed, signal a positive health benefit associated with dog ownership.
 
To date, there is no consensus on recommended sitting times for optimal health.
 
Discussion
The demonstrated improvements in physical activity with dog ownership could be used by health promotion professionals to encourage physical activity in older adults, the researchers noted. However, due to study design, it remains unknown “whether more active people are likely to own dogs, or whether DOs become more active through owning a dog.”
 
For future studies of physical activity and dog ownership, researchers suggested further consideration of dog demographics and how dogs are walked (leash or off leash).
 
 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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